"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Thursday, July 08, 2004 It sure pays to visit a place twice.
I went back to All Souls Episcopal Church in Buduburam yesterday afternoon. I'd been invited by the wardens there to meet with them and the vestry and then to preach and celebrate at their Wednesday evening service.
If you remember, I'd been there once before -- a couple Saturdays back. We'd wandered over to All Souls and happened upon an ECW fundraiser, and lots of happy people who gave us a tour, chatted us up and fed us some amazing cornbread.
Yesterday, I went back and I heard about and saw a very different Buduburam and a very different All Souls. What I saw was one of the most remarkable congregations and stories I have ever seen in a church.
All Souls is an Episcopal Church in exile. There is no other way to put it.
They are officially a congregation of the Liberian Episcopal Church -- which, because of Liberia's history of being resettled by repatriated African slaves from the U.S., is actually a part of the Episcopal Church, USA, and not another part of the Anglican Communion. They use the 1979 American Episcopal prayer book (I got to do Rite II last night!), sing out of old 1940 Episcopal Hymnals and have the Episcopal and Liberian flags in their sanctuary. Even though they are in Ghana, they are very clear that they are Liberian and very clear that they are part of the ECUSA.
Only what they really are is a congregation without a country, without a diocese, without much of anything.
Several years ago, the Liberian church gave All Souls (which has been around for 12 years) financial help to put up their building, but since then has offered no assistance and has basically no contact with them. It's hard to blame the Liberian church ... their whole country is perpetually coming apart at the seams -- they're kinda distracted.
But the diocese that All Souls falls into geographically -- the Diocese of Cape Coast in the Anglican Province of West Africa -- doesn't own or claim them either. They have a cordial relationship, but Cape Coast offers no support and they really don't have much of a connection.
They are, in essence, a congregation without a diocese, without support and in exile from their home.
And yet, they are a part not just of the Anglican Communion but a part of our very own Episcopal Church, U.S.A.
But they told me yesterday that I was the first Episcopal priest ever to visit there ... and, in fact, other than Richard Parkins (the director of Episcopal Migration Ministries, who was the one who told me I needed to visit Buduburam) and some people he has sent, they can't recall anyone from the Episcopal Church ever being there.
And this is just the beginning of the story.
As the wardens walked me from the tro-tro station to the church, we began talking about the camp and about the situation back home in Liberia. And the picture I got when I was there several weeks ago began to change dramatically.
First of all, those power liens that you saw in the pictures I took? They don't carry power. There hasn't been power in Buduburam for quite a while. I couldn't make out if it was six months or a year and a half or longer. Anyone who has power has it because they have a gasoline generator (and gas prices in Ghana have done just what they've done everywhere else ... spiked way up). The U.N. is slowly trying to rewire and restore power but the people have been told not to hold their breath.
Second, the stories I heard about people starting to go back to Liberia were put in a different light. Yes, the military situation there is starting to calm down for awhile, but there are still huge problems. There are lots of small arms floating around everywhere, and there is a large amount of sporadic violence. You don't really know from looking at people which side they are on, and a practice that one of them referred to as "witch hunting" is not uncommon. Witch hunting is basically when someone takes advantage of the chaos of the civil unrest to settle an old grudge -- which they do by breaking into someone's house and ransacking it ... or even dragging the person out in the middle of the night and killing them.
Even so, there are still people who go back because either they just want to be back home or they are in such a bad state at the camp they figure they take their chances.
The population of the camp is officially 45,000 ... but that is only the people who are registered with the U.N. They estimated the actual population as closer to 60,000.
We got to the church and went inside and sat in plastic chairs in a circle with the vestry. We prayed and then they began to talk wiht me. They were very up front and honest ... they neededhelp and they were praying I could offer it to them.
Now, I've sat in plenty of situations where I felt like I was getting played or fed a story or milked for funds or something else. This was nothing like that. This was a group of people sitting with me and, very plainly and unemotionally, telling me how it was and very specifically telling me what they needed and what they hoped I wold be able to help them get.
I'm trying to think of a way to describe how it felt ... it was almost like they were really, really hoping I would believe what they were saying because it was true but because they also knew it sounded pretty unbelieveable.
Throughout the whole conversation it became very clear that these are people who are struggling to be faithful against all odds. They are not bitter about it. They are not depressed about it. But they are also realistic about it. They need help and they are asking for it.
And, even though it shouldn't matter in terms of whether we help them if they wer epartof the Anglican Church of Ghana or even a mosque ... the whole time I was there, I couldn't stop reminding myself:
This is a part of MY EPISCOPAL CHURCH! And NOBODY in the ECUSA knows they are here!
Here is some of what they shared with me.
First off, medical care is a huge problem at the camp.
The UN provides some, but it is very expensive and generally insufficient (there was clearly no love lost between the people there and the UNHCR,BTW. If I lived there, I know I would feel the same way, but I cut the UNHCR a LOT of slack on this one. Given the scope of the refugee problem and the scant resources they have, they've got to triage a lot and you get a lot of places that end up losers when that happens.). Malaria, typhoid, TB, eye infections, bad stomach problems. You name it, they've got it.
They talked about a Baptist group that had come over a month or two back with about 50 people on a medical mission. They brought medical supplies and medical professionals and support people and were able to help out a lot. Could the Episcopal Church do something like that, they asked?
One of the big problems with medical care is that it is expensive and if you don't have money, you don't get the care. Unemployment at the camp is incredibly high (it was certainly no problem for the entire church vestry to meet me at 4 in the afternoon) and there just is no money. So people go without medical care ... they told me a story of a parishioner who needed an operation to repair cracked vertebrae because he had been in an accident and he waited from Monday to Saturday until they raised the money just being given painkillers (which they had to pay for up front) before he could get the surgery.
Medical supplies, bandages, medication -- you name it, there's a shortage of it.
As far as the church goes, they need everything -- prayer books, hymnals, any kind of church school supplies, vestments (they had to borrow some for my visit), chalice, paten, basic church supplies... they have basically nothing.
Their entire church budget is $5000 a year. That covers maintenance, paying for a priest to come two Sundays a month for Eucharist, gas, electricity and everything else. One of their largest expenses is outreach ... mostly situations like the parishioner who needed back surgery but couldn't get it because they couldn't afford it. Even in their poverty, when someone is in need, they empty their coffers.
Their projected revenue this year is $800.
They have two Gen Xers in seminary in Cape Coast. One just finished his first year, the other his second. Tuition is $2500 a year and books are another $500-600. Neither one knows where tuition money is going to come from next year. I met both of them, they are wonderful, Spirit-filled people who want to come back to work at All Souls after they are ordained.
They would like to provide skills training for people, so that when they are either repatriated or resettled, they would have some sort of marketable skills. But there are no funds.
A year ago, they opened the All Souls Child Development Center. It's for children 1-7 years old and though the population fluctuates, it's got about 150 students. Tuition is about 25,000 cedis (less than $3) for a three-month term ...and there are still plenty of kids who can't afford that. The UN gives them some books,but mostly they scrounge. The teachers come from the church, mostly, and get paid a stipend of about $10 a month ... that's less than 50 cents a day.
All kids who come to school get fed lunch. Many show up not having had breakfast.
In many ways, these are typical tales of poverty. But in many situations where these situations exist, there are some social safety nets. Here there are few if any.
I found myself wanting to say over and over again ... I'm sorry, I really didn't know. I'm sorry, we just didn't know. How else can we justify that a congregation in our own church is living isolated and in this situation and we are doing nothing about it. Refugees are pretty much the most vulnerable people the world has to offer, and we follow a Christ who says that when we minister to the most vulnerable we minister to him. We just didn't know. But now we do.
And then worship started. And this amazing community gathered and danced and sang and had this wild, schizophrenic liturgy that alternated between high church Anglo Catholic and borderline charismatic pentecostal praise and worship. It was a little dizzying but once you got the hang of it, it was amazing and wonderful (David, you have to go there sometime ... you would love it!). They welcomed us (I went with a bunch of the crossroads students and some others), loved us and treated us like family.
And after the service they escorted us through the dark, power-and-light-free streets and gullies of Buduburam and put us on the right trotro back to Accra.
I know this is long ... and thanks for staying with it for this long. But I just couldn't leave any of this out. I'm going to go there again on Monday with Robin and Emmanuel on our way to Cape Coast because I just want her to see this place, to see the school, to meet some of the people.
This is one of OUR churches. And they have been abandoned by everyone and nobody knows about it.
We are going to do something about it. I promised them all I could, and that was that I personally would support them but that I would also carry their story back to America and let it tell itself. How can we not do everything we can for these people who embody not just the vulnerable people Christ calls us to but the life of continuing to give out of our poverty that Christ calls us to live.
I asked them to set up a bank account so that we could do fund transfers ... there is no other safe way to get them funds. At the very least, I can send part of my tithe there. A little really will go a long way. Maybe ECM can develop a sister relationship with this congregation. Maybe Jen and Emily can come over and work with the school and do basic medical care. Maybe St. Michael School or Forsyth School can adopt All Souls school and not just send them funds and supplies but start to build relationships between their children and ours.
They need our help. And I don't see how we in any conscience at all can say no. I know I can't.
I have felt there are many reasons I have been given the gift of this trip, but until last night, I never felt so strongly that THIS, as much and maybe more than anything, was why I was led here. It was so powerfully clear to me that this community was in dire need and that they were looking to me as someone God had sent to help them. It was so honest and so clear.
When I got back to my room at the villa and started thinking about, all I could do was weep. But it wasn't because what I had seen was so sad or tragic ... but because it was so beautiful. The people of All Souls are the people of Israel in Babylon ... finding ways to sing the old songs in a strange land and singing some new songs as well. Praising God for every moment of life even as life kicks them in the teeth.
If you can help, leave a comment or send me an email (MKinman@juno.com). If you want to help but don't know how, do the same. Whatever you do, don't keep this story to yourself. How often in your life can you say you have the opportunity to radically change a whole community of people's lives for the better?
The opportunity is in our hands. It's why I'm here. I'm convinced of it.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."